DETROIT--Eleanor Josaitis was a stay-at-home mom, raising five kids in Taylor, Michigan in the 1960s, when she decided she wanted to help build racial harmony in Detroit's segregated communities. So she packed up her family and moved them to Detroit's Sherwood Forest neighborhood after the 1967 riots.
Soon after, she co-founded Focus: HOPE, one of the city's most vital institutions still working 43 years later to overcome racism, poverty and injustice by helping people find financial independence.
Josaitis died just before 4 a.m. Tuesday at Angela Hospice in Livonia after a battle with cancer. She was 79.
But she leaves a legacy as one of Detroit's civil rights leaders who touched countless lives.
"Her impact has been limitless not just in terms of the direct services that Focus: HOPE offers, but the inspiration that she has provided to so many folks in this area," said William F. Jones Jr., CEO of the civil and human rights organization. "Every week I run into someone who tells me that Eleanor inspired me to do this or Eleanor inspired me to do that. The leverage she was able to achieve through her actions and by sharing her own personal story of triumph is immeasurable."
Details of a visitation and public memorial were expected to be released later Tuesday.
Friends, family and state leaders remembered her as a towering role model who simultaneously helped and inspired others.
"Eleanor Josaitis is a spiritual giant," said former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. "She supported me — and countless others — in prayer and love. I am inexpressibly grateful for her moral clarity, her abundant compassion for the poor, her devotion to Detroit. And for her example of how to live each day with purpose."
The Rev. Lawrence M. Ventline, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Roseville, added: "When I think of Eleanor Josaitis … a hymn, 'A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,' resounds. … A model for the nation, Focus:HOPE still rocks, but won't be the same freighter without its huge heart at the helm."
Founded in March 1968, Focus: HOPE launched at the height of the civil rights movement and weeks before activist Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
It also rose out of the ashes of the Detroit riots the year before in July 1967. Josaitis, along with the late Rev. William T. Cunningham and a band of supporters, co-founded it as a way to identify the problems that led to the riots, and do something about them.
Focus: HOPE started out in a warehouse with a leaking roof but evolved into an organization that provides work force training, food assistance, child care and more to underserved adults, children and senior citizens in Metro Detroit.
Today, Focus: HOPE's campus stretches across 40 acres and has become a national model for urban revitalization with its staff and scores of volunteers.
"When I think of Eleanor, I think of hope, faith and love, but above all these three is her focus on love," said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP. "She loves people, and it has been demonstrated in her service to this community. If ever there was one whose life is exemplary of service it is she."
Edward Deeb, chairman of the Michigan Business and Professional Association, was a long time admirer of Josaitis. "Eleanor Josaitis was a courageous woman who fought for justice and fair play at all levels," Deeb said.
"Although we will miss her, her work and accompoishments will on to help make Detroit a world calss city once again."
Josaitis became a civil rights activist after watching a program on the Nuremberg Trials, the prosecutions of Nazi Germany leaders, and it was interrupted by a news story of the civil rights marches in Selma, Ala.
She met Cunningham at Taylor's St. Alfred Parish, where he celebrated weekend masses
When the riots erupted in Detroit, Josaitis and Cunningham toured the devastation and decided they needed to do something. They organized a blanket and clothing drive through the church, and before long their vision of an organization sprang to life.
In its early days, Focus: HOPE gained national attention when it surveyed the prices and quality of products of grocery stores and pharmacies, and compared businesses in the suburbs and city.
Josaitis also helped develop education and training programs to help under- and unemployed residents gain skills to land jobs and nurture rewarding careers.
"Eleanor Josaitis was an inspiring woman whose spirit and determination helped transform a city," Gov. Rick Snyder said. "She was a tireless and devoted leader who served the entire state of Michigan by bringing people together to solve problems and providing opportunities for those who had none."
"Her life's work has been to give opportunities to people," Martha Schultz, a Focus: HOPE retiree, said. "It's a phenomenal organization, and Eleanor's personal effect is overwhelming. She led the change, and we continue to follow."
Josaitis briefly was overshadowed by Cunningham, said Jack Kresnak, an activist for children who's writing a book about Cunningham and had spoken with Josaitis for his research.
Back then, women either stayed home and raised children or taught school. But she evolved quickly. "She is a towering figure in the history of racial justice in the city and worked tirelessly," Kresnak said. "You cannot overestimate Eleanor's impact on the city."
Even though her mission was to overcome racial injustice, in the process she also inspired many women.
"She brought women more to the forefront in the struggle for social justice," Kresnak said. "She was a clear role model for women of modest means, showing them that you can have a voice and can make change."
In the fall of 2010, Josaitis was diagnosed with primary peritoneal cancer. During her treatment, she faced other health issues, including a fracture to her left hip. This year, Josaitis moved into Woodhaven Retirement Community, and last week she moved to Angela Hospice in Livonia.
In June, she talked only of continuing the work she founded. "I want it (Focus: HOPE) to always be successful," Josaitis said from her nursing home bed. "We made an important mark. In a person's life, they have to have opportunities and skills, and I want to help them move on."
She is survived by her husband of 55 years, Donald; children Mark, Janet, Michael, Thomas, and Mary; several grandchildren, two sisters, a brother and several nieces and nephews.